Gwen Ifill Looks Toward Debate…and Beyond

By Chris Ariens 

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

Many TV folk feel NBC’s hiring 22-year-old Luke Russert as a convention correspondent is a case of nepotism gone wild.

Gwen Ifill isn’t one of them.


Luke, son of late “Meet the Press” star Tim Russert, “is a smart, incredibly centered young man,” says PBS’s Ifill. “I think he has a lot to offer.”

“I long for Tim’s voice in this election. Luke channels Tim better than anybody I know. He’s trying something new for a while. It’s not like they’re making him bureau chief.”

Ifill, moderator of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for Jim Lehrer’s “NewsHour,” is hardly objective when it comes to young Luke. (He’ll cover youth issues at the confabs beginning with the Democrats Monday.)

Russert pere lured Ifill from the New York Times to NBC’s Washington bureau in 1994 and five years later convinced network brass to let her out of her contract to join PBS.

“Tim got me into NBC and got me out of NBC,” says Ifill, 52. “He kept every promise he ever made to me. He promised I wouldn’t fail, and he made sure I didn’t.”

For the second consecutive cycle, Ifill will moderate the Vice Presidential debate. It’s set for Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.

Prepping for the ’04 debate “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Ifill says. Looking for advice, she turned to Lehrer, a veteran moderator who’s handling the Sept. 26 presidential debate in Mississippi.

“He told me to make sure I police my own information flow, with the understanding that a lot of people will be trying to discern what I might ask. I shouldn’t tip my hand. Any question should be mine and mine alone.”

No pressure.

“There’s pressure, but it’s good pressure,” Ifill says. “It allows you to dig really deep for questions.” As for the many email suggestions from friends, colleagues and viewers, “Sometimes I read them; sometimes I don’t.”

Buzz in the biz is that Ifill is on the short list for “MTP” moderator. She’s not talking, other than “I have a really good job right now.”

Ifill does acknowledge, however, that she’s a “huge fan” of NBC’s fast-track political director, Chuck Todd, and says “he should be part of it [“MTP”] in some way.”